When former superintendent William R. Hite Jr. abruptly resigned last summer to take a job in Philadelphia, the Prince George’s County Board of Education found itself scrambling to find someone to temporarily lead the system.
The school board hired Alvin L. Crawley as its interim superintendent in August, but now, just seven months later, it must decide who, among three finalists, will go forward in leading Maryland’s second-largest school system. The superintendent will step into a struggling system that is working to implement Common Core standards, reform its teacher-evaluation process and improve student achievement.
It is also a pivotal moment for Prince George’s County at large, as parents, elected officials and civic and business leaders have pinned much of the county’s future on the turnaround of its schools.
“This is a crucial decision,” said David Harrington, the president and chief executive of the Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce. “If we are going to lure businesses that will uplift Prince George’s County . . . we’re going to have to hit a home run with this decision.”
The school board narrowed the field of 10 candidates last week to Crawley; Eric J. Becoats, the superintendent of Durham (N.C.) Public Schools; and Harrison A. Peters, a Chicago Public Schools chief of schools.
People with knowledge of other candidates who applied for the position have privately questioned why some candidates did not make the final cut. Saying they could not speak publicly because it is an ongoing search, they said some school board members have been lobbying for Crawley to get the job.
Board members did not respond to requests for comment.
County residents, who will have a chance to meet the finalists Tuesday night, said they want a superintendent who plans to stay in Prince George’s long enough to implement plans and see them through.
“We need someone who has a full commitment to the Prince George’s County Public Schools,” said state Sen. Joanne Benson (D), the education liaison to the county’s Senate delegation. “It shouldn’t be someone who is here for the short term.”
Many said rapid turnover at the helm — five superintendents in 10 years — has been detrimental to the system.
“It’s going to take time for a superintendent to turn the system in the right direction,” said Howard Stone, a former member of the board.
“I don’t want a superintendent that will say yes to everything [school board members] want,” said Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard (D), the education liaison for the county’s House delegation.
Other stakeholders said the school system needs a schools chief who is an adept manager, politically savvy and able to engage with the community. He also should have a proven track record of success in running a diverse school system with a growing population of students receiving free and reduced-priced meals, some said.
Becoats worked as an administrator for the Baltimore public school system from 1992 to 1997, first as director of planning and student placement and then as the chief planner for strategic planning and student placement.
He then moved to North Carolina, where he has moved up the ranks. He started in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in 1997, as the executive director of planning management. Becoats left Charlotte-Mecklenburg in 2004, after he was accused of using school system property to conduct personal business, according to a 2010 report in the (Raleigh) News & Observer. Becoats worked in Guilford County for five years before taking charge of the 33,000-student system in Durham in July 2010.
Becoats did not return calls seeking comment.
“The folks in Durham believe he’s an engaged, hardworking superintendent willing to think creatively to address the challenges in this district,” said Heidi Carter, chairman of Durham’s school board. She said the board has been pleased with Becoats and voted to extend his contract until 2016.
Becoats has focused on technology, education reform and maintaining a rich curriculum during his time in Durham, Carter said, and, as a result, the system has seen “incremental improvements in test scores and graduation rates.”
Crawley came to Prince George’s County seven months ago from the District's public schools, where he served as deputy chief of programming in the office of special education for six months. He worked in Arlington County for 17 years, first as the director of special education and then as the assistant superintendent of student services.
Starting his career in Boston as a learning-disabilities teacher, Crawley later became a school system program adviser for compliance and monitoring there. He then moved to Chicago, where he worked from 1991 to 1997 as a compliance coordinator, an administrator to the assistant superintendent and assistant superintendent of special education and gifted programs.
Crawley said the board told him last week that he could not comment on his selection as a finalist.
Some say Crawley has been able to forge good relationships with staff and community groups because of his pleasant, easygoing personality. But others say the interim superintendent has not demonstrated his vision for the system during his short tenure.
Stone said Crawley “has fairly impressed me. . . . I was very critical when they went outside of the county [for the interim post]. . . . But he has come in and made himself familiar with the terrain of the school system.”
Peters served in the Navy for two years, graduated from college and then became an elementary school teacher in Orlando in 1999. By 2006, he was a middle school principal, and three years later, he moved to Charlotte to become a high school principal.
Peters said he had the opportunity to work in schools with a large low-income student population as well as one of more affluence in North Carolina. The school in Charlotte went from 92 to 97.3 percent proficient in standardized testing during his time as principal, he said.
In 2010, Peters became a chief area officer for the Chicago Public Schools, responsible for 12 high schools serving 11,000 students. He now serves as a chief of schools, leading 36 schools with about 22,200 students.
Peters is the only finalist who does not have a doctorate, which is not required to be a superintendent in Maryland. But he said he is working on his doctoral dissertation on “A Study of Teachers’ Perception of their Performance Appraisal being Tied to Student Outcomes.”
Peters, who is married with two sons, ages 8 and 15, said he and his family want to live in a community where they can set down roots.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.